Haifa University has conducted a preliminary study that has identified a correlation between the exceptionally hot and dry winter of northeast Brazil and the recent outbreak of the Zika virus which has led to numerous of birth defects.
The study was led by Dr. Shlomit Paz of the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the University of Haifa and Professor Jan Semenza of the Stockholm-based European Center for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC).
The main findings of the provisional research contradict the conclusions drawn by the World Health Organization (WHO), which declared a state of emergency last week over the outbreak of the virus.
According to the WHO, the virus is associated with heavy rains in parts of Central and South America as a result of El Nino, a phenomenon that involves a substantial increase in Pacific Ocean water temperatures.
Preliminary research led by Haifa University, however, indicates that the relevant factor associated with the virus is in fact the wave of exceptionally hot and dry conditions, which have reached record levels in the latter half of 2015 in northeastern Brazil where the Zika virus has broken out.
The research argues that the outbreak is not attributable to heavy rains rather it can be attributable to another factor involving climate change and global warming patterns that have affected the planet over recent decades.
“It is very preliminary research, but we found a linkage and overlap between regions in northeastern Brazil with extreme climatic conditions such as record-level extreme temperatures and a severe drop in water levels,” Dr. Paz told Tazpit Press Service (TPS).
She added that it is well known that the high temperatures encourage the growth rates of the Aedes mosquito population through which the Zika virus is transmitted. The dry conditions, however, deprive the mosquitoes of the water they need for survival. In turn, the mosquitoes swarm around water containers left in the open by local residents.
She also explained why the findings of her research undermine those of the WHO. “The WHO’s conclusions are a mistake. They talk about a linkage with El Nino and about extreme rainfalls, etc. We found, however, that the main regions of the Zika outbreak were characterized by a severe drop in water levels.”
While Paz acknowledged that mosquitoes are known to prevail under conditions of intense rainfall as suggested by the WHO, she cited previous studies that demonstrate the correlation between dry conditions and the risk of an upsurge in mosquito populations.
“People don’t know it, but by putting all their water in open containers, they prepare very comfortable conditions for the mosquitoes,” she said.
The Zika virus has been known to researchers for several decades, but the reason for the sudden severe outbreak has not yet been found. “It is very important to highlight that the reasons are multifactorial and the climate is only one of the factors that may have an impact and that is very important. But it is not the only factor,” Paz said.
She concluded that further research would take significant periods of time and that the University of Haifa is currently continuing its research through the collection and analysis of related data on a broader scale.
By Alexander J. Apfel/TPS